Editorial: Reasons to be cheerful, part six

Helping others for no reward is a great part of the quality of life for many in Britain
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Now for the good news. Our Happy List, which we publish today, celebrates the qualities in people that the news tends to overlook. There is a media bias in favour of the extremes of human behaviour, and a bias within that bias towards reporting the unhappy, the unkind and the selfish. Our Happy List started six years ago as an antidote to a list published by a rival newspaper that seemed to glorify the accumulation of money. We were not opposed to success; merely seeking to widen its definition, in which, we think, we caught a mood.

David Cameron acknowledged as much with his advocacy of the "Big Society". He meant well, and we supported what he was trying to do. His slogan was a mistake, however, not because no one knew what it meant but because it seemed to be trying to make voluntary action a party political question. To have a chapter of the Conservative manifesto for the 2010 election entitled "Build the Big Society" looked as if Mr Cameron were trying to claim philanthropy as a Tory virtue. Worse, once in government, the Prime Minister was widely seen as using the Big Society as a cover for cuts in public spending. When that phase of indignation had subsided, all that seemed to be left of the idea was that it was a symbol of Mr Cameron's blurry sense of purpose.

Yet he was on to something. Although the free market is the most efficient way to allocate resources, and competition is the best spur to the innovation that makes our prosperity possible, it is not the source of deeper fulfilment. Helping others for no reward other than the satisfaction of doing so is a great part of the quality of life for most people in Britain. As we report today, figures published by the Cabinet Office suggest that 72 per cent of people have volunteered over the previous year, defined as "giving unpaid help to people who are not relatives".

The same survey finds that social cohesion on other indicators has increased in the past 10 years: 78 per cent of people say that they feel they belong to their neighbourhood, up from 70 per cent; and 87 per cent say that "people from different backgrounds get on well together" in their local area, up from 80 per cent in 2003.

That makes the point about the non-partisan nature of altruism. Those increases have been enabled by the enlightened policies of the Labour government; and it is encouraging that the coalition is continuing them.

The Independent on Sunday is encouraged, too, that Mr Cameron intends to use the G8 summit which he is hosting in Enniskillen in June to promote the idea of "social impact bonds", a way of attracting funds for charities and social enterprises if they can deliver better results than traditional public services.

Mr Cameron's biggest mistake with the Big Society was perhaps to give it a name at all. Like patriotism or discretion, advertising altruism can be tasteless and self-defeating.

Decency by stealth has long been the British way, and long may it continue. But, every once in a while, let us blow our collective trumpet. Ours is a wonderful nation, in which the vast majority of people are generous and kind. Our Happy List aims to celebrate the exceptional contribution made by just 100 people, but they are exceptional only in degree, not in nature: they are representative of millions. We are entitled to take more pride in ourselves.